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The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) became law in 1966 and guaranteed the public the right of access to information held by the federal government. According to the act, any individual may request and receive a document, file, or other record held by any agency of the federal government. The burden of proof has shifted from the individual to the government, and the law requires that the government justify the need for secrecy regarding a document. However, there are nine specific exemptions to the access rule, including national defense, foreign policy, trade secrets, and criminal investigations.

The Privacy Act of 1974 enhances the FOIA by permitting individuals access to records about themselves, which are held by federal agencies. Such information must be complete, accurate, and relevant; the law requires that each agency publish a description of its record system and forbids the agency from disclosing personal information except to the individual who is the subject of such information. Both laws permit the individual to request access to federal records regarding himself or herself and allows the individual to appeal a denial of that request.

The FOIA sets a deadline of ten working days for replying to the information request and a 20-day deadline on responding to the appeal. The initial request letter and the appeals letter, if necessary, should be clearly and simply written. The Freedom of Information Clearinghouse will provide a brochure detailing how to write a request as well as an appeals letter.

For further information look at a User's Guide to the Freedom of Information Act, from Freedom of Information Clearinghouse, P.O. Box 19367, Washington, DC 20036. Phone (202) 833-3000.